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Books are still vital for literacy and learning

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While the improved 2023 matric pass rate is cause for celebration, consider the almost 500 000 children who started grade one in the same year but dropped out of school along the way. What can be done to ensure that more learners stay in the system until grade 12?

The crisis in South Africa’s education can be linked directly to the crisis around literacy. Learners with strong literacy skills are more likely to stay longer in school and do well academically. Yet, the latest results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study shows that 81% of 10-year-olds in South Africa don’t understand what they are reading. Not only does this give clues as to why learners in the foundation phase drop out, it also gives meaningful insight into what happens in the successive years, up to grade 12.   

Nic Spaull writes in the report Learning to Read, Reading to Learn: “Since almost all future learning will depend on this fundamental understanding of the relation between print and spoken language, it is unsurprising that literacy, built upon a firm foundation of basic reading, is used as one of the primary measures of school efficacy.” 

The reason reading is so important for young children is that from grade four level, they need language skills to access information and acquire knowledge from the school curriculum. It is a vital stepping stone to greater education, future skills training and establishing a career. 

As former UN secretary general Kofi Annan said, “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realise his or her full potential.”  

But what can parents, grandparents and passionate educators do when the educational divide is so wide and the playing field is not level? Most learners in South Africa are in public schools and many don’t have cellphones or access to mobile devices and/or the affordable data that’s necessary for connectivity. This is why it is important that resources, such as dictionaries, be accessible both digitally and in print. This makes it possible to cater for diverse social circumstances in an equitable manner. 

Back to basics 

Core books, readers, dictionaries and other print reference materials may seem old school but they can play a vital role in improving reading ability and boosting literacy. This is because language and vocabulary are at the root of understanding and learning. 

In addition to the learning that takes place at schools, parents, especially of young children, need to focus on creating an environment where children can develop their language ability. It’s time to pull out the dictionary — or perhaps buy a new one — and actively encourage its use when doing homework or assignments. 

Many studies show that dictionaries are valuable learning tools for children. There is evidence that they also help foster critical thinking and improve reading skills. There is even proof that children using a bilingual school dictionary in one particular South African context helped Xhosa students as well as those struggling with Additional Language (English) to read better, understand more and grow their vocabulary.  

This is particularly helpful for those learners whose home language is not English and who are required to transition to English medium of instruction in grade four as required by the department of basic education. They need a comfortable reading understanding of English and dictionaries can change the trajectory of language development for them. 

In addition, many newer dictionaries are localised to our Mzanzi setting — weaving in socio-cultural references and concepts — making them more relatable, accessible and easy to understand.  

We need to improve access to learning tools for South African learners, focusing on schools in poorer communities that have no libraries and few books. We must raise awareness of the needs of these schools, to prevent learners here from falling behind and dropping out of the school system. 

Tatiana Kazim, an Equal Education Law Centre researcher, points out that the South African Human Rights Commission views library books as a necessary material to learn how to read and write.  

“When access to the internet in South Africa is so patchy and so unequal, there’s still a pressing need for physical resources, like books and libraries,” she emphasised in one interview

Anyone who is wondering what they can do to improve the situation at so many under-resourced schools should sponsor a mobile library or donate a set of reference books or dictionaries. 

Make your next gift a book — the child will thank you later.  

Lucia Ndabula is the national education manager at the Oxford University Press.

Hundreds of thousands of children don’t have access to the internet and need physical resources, such as dictionaries, to further their education